We asked private investigator Booth Neyscop to chase down a genealogical lead. Here’s his unedited report.
I didn’t have much to go by. The blurry color print of the decrepit barn and forlorn grain silo looked to be more than twenty years old. It supposedly showed the site of the original Barnett Cunningham (1738-1808) farmstead in Fayette County, Pa. A distant cousin, Judy Allison, had obtained the picture from Richard Cunningham, a descendant of Barnett, and posted it on Ancestry.com. Unfortunately, Richard hadn’t been heard from in years.
Barnett Cunningham had claimed 316 acres in 1770 by striking a tree with a tomahawk and leaving it there. That’s the way they did it in the years after the Seven Years War when there was a rush on land in Western Pennsylvania. My sixth great grandfather held the land that way for the first 17 years. Then in 1787 he made the whole thing “legal” by taking out a warrant. He paid twelve pounds, six shillings. In 1795, he received a “patent” for the land.
“Richard had told me the story of when the family came to Fayette County,” Judy related. “The Hustons came first. Barnett came and staked his tomahawk claim. He went back east to get his family. They came over the mountains by wagon. He had his family and some siblings. The ones ahead realized they forgot salt so they sent word back. They put the baby out of the wagon to make room for the salt.”
Nice to know, but Judy couldn’t figure out the exact location of the farmstead — she’d been clicking all over Google Earth to try to find it. This much was clear — figuring out this mystery would take some real legwork, not the digital pussyfooting you do with a damned mouse. As fate would have it, I happened to be going up that way later in the week.
The Cunningham connection
What’s my connection to Barnett Cunningham, who reportedly left behind 250 grandchildren, a seeming mathematical impossibility? It goes back through my great grandmother, Elizabeth Boner Thompson (1878-1954), who rode a horse every day and didn’t really care much for female company. Her mother Sarah Ann Clark, the older sister of Sen. William Andrews Clark, was born in Fayette, Pa., where the Cunningham claim was made. Sarah’s great grandmother, on her mother’s side, was Elizabeth Cunningham, one of Barnett’s daughters. That’s why the site of the original farmstead needs to be found.
The Cunninghams were probably Scots-Irish. Judy thinks they may have been Covenanters who came to America to avoid religious prosecution. In any case, Barnett Cunningham’s father, another Barnet (typically spelled with one “t”), came here from Scotland before 1725 — he was a witness to a will on that date, Judy has found. Barnet may have been in the textile business. Some people believe Barnett II was born in Ireland, but his sister’s family bible lists his place of birth as Easton, Pa. That’s pretty hard evidence. We’ll go with that.
In any case, Barnett II claimed 316 acres of land close to the banks of the Youghiogheny River. His step-brother, James Torrence, took an adjacent claim two years later, and together they formed the Tyrone Presbyterian Church in an oak grove at the juncture of their claims.
Thankfully the church — or at least the latest iteration of the church — still stands. Several years ago a local newspaper published an article celebrating its 200th anniversary. The original church wasn’t as fancy as the one that’s used to today, that’s for sure. You really had to want to go there. The floor was earthen. The roof was clapboard, held in place by wooden logs, covered with paper or linen coated with hog or bear grease. The seats were made from split logs, with legs. The pulpit was little more than two rough-hewn boards with a third board on top. The preacher sat on a rough-hewn board, supported by two stout wooden pins sunk in the wall. The church was one of the first in this region of the country. People would travel 15 miles to attend services.
That’s enough history. This is how I figured the investigation would go. The pictures of the original Cunningham farmstead showed a large, run-down barn with two silos that resembled rocket ships, or maybe on closer inspection a certain piece of male anatomy. I figured all I had to do was drive to the church then find the farmstead, which should be nearby. I could only hope that developers hadn’t permanently changed the landscape. They always do.
The GPS in my phone (sometimes modern technology can’t be avoided) took me straight to the church. Cunningham, according to one report — who knows whether it was reliable — was supposed to be buried in the adjacent grave yard. His tombstone, unfortunately, was nowhere to be found. Many of the gravestones were barely readable. Others weren’t marked. If the church knew the location of the grave, you’d think they would have marked it. His bones, if they were buried under this ground, weren’t talking. This search would have to be continued another day.
The church was surrounded by beautiful, rolling farms. But which ones belonged to Cunningham and Torrance? It wasn’t clear. I got back in the car and drove the back roads in search of the silos that I’d seen in Judy’s picture. I couldn’t find them. I did find one homestead with a tree growing up through a junked car in the front yard. That was something. I worried that the farm had been updated since the picture was taken. This was hopeless. I was 50 miles from the closest decent cup of coffee. I decided to continue on to my appointment. This search would take some phone calls.
Hitting the phone, hard
When I got to Pittsburgh, my first call was to the local historical society. A very courteous reference librarian took down all the information and said she’d report back with what she could find. Later that day, she sent an email to say she had found the original patent map with Cunningham’s claim. It wasn’t much help.
“I have compared the patent map with the Google satellite images and looked all over, and I just can’t seem to find that farm!,” she wrote. “I did find Cunningham Bridge Road, which I’d consider the likeliest location, but no dice… Since there is so much new construction in the area, I wonder if the place is still around.” That makes two of us.
Maybe the county assessor’s office could pair the old patent map with today’s parcels? It was worth a try. Sure enough, the very helpful David Doman, who was in charge of mapping, managed to lay the original patent claim document over the current map of the county. It showed that the 316 acres Cunningham secured was located northwest of the church. The property was off Cunningham Bridge Road, just as the research library had suspected. It was on the west side of the road, after you turned off Dawson Scottdale Road.
The next stop was Google Earth to see what was there. Okay, I’m not above using whatever digital tools are at my disposal. The first house on the west side of the road, 1085 Cunningham Bridge Road, didn’t look like it was connected to a farm. I noticed on Trulia that it had recently changed hands. There was no mention of a farm in the transaction. The next house, 1119 Cunningham Bridge Road, looked very promising. It appeared to be connected to farmland. And…I could barely make out two silos in the backyard. They could be the ones.
It was time to get back in the Audi. I opened the sun roof and tore out of town. When I reached 1119 Cunningham Bridge Road, clouds had overtaken the sky, turning the day into an overcast mess. I found an old house on the property. In the distance, work was being done on the barn and the two silos. They had the distinctive tops that I seen in the picture. I was pretty certain this was the place, even though improvements had been made since the old pictures were taken.
Driving away, I happened to meet the owner of the house next door, as she took garbage to the curb. She confirmed what I’d found on the Internet: She and had her husband had recently bought the property. She said house next door was owned by Delany Rumbaugh, who was in her nineties. (I later discovered the Rumbaughs had bought the property in 1984.) Her husband had passed away almost ten years ago. Delany had recently sold the farm to Mike and Vicky Baker, who had been tenant farming it for them all along. She wanted to make sure they would get it if she passed. Nice gesture.
Barnett Cunningham and the war
I know you are dying to know more about this Barnett Cunningham fellow. According to his “resume,” he served as superintendent of the highways in 1794, though there couldn’t have been that many of them. He was also a private in David Lindsey’s Company of Rangers from 1778 to 1783. The Rangers protected the western region of Pennsylvania from attacks by Native Americans. He later served as captain in the Lancaster Militia.
More significantly, Barney served in the Revolutionary War, in the Pennsylvania Regiment and others. Judy was in contact with a DAR historian several years ago who was convinced Cunningham fought at Brandywine, the biggest battle of the war. Fought near Chadds Ford, Pa., the battle lasted for 11 hours. Roughly 1,000 Patriots were killed or wounded. “She thought Barnett was injured, traveled north, and then went west across PA, then south to his home. She died before I could find her source.”
For the record, Cunningham’s mother Sarah (probably a Marjory) and father were born and married in Scotland. The couple had 5 children — Margery, William, Barnett, Ann, and Jane. Sarah married Hugh Torrance after her first husband died in 1742. Torrance had arrived in Pennsylvania in 1740, according to Torrance family researchers. He had been married at least twice before.
That’s it for my report. Enjoy.